The Beatles: Reunited and live
Did The Beatles break up just in time? My view is that the timing, though arbitrary, was pitch-perfect. The four split just after they released their best album and just as their audience was changing — from there on it was going to be diminishing returns.
Author Peter Lee, whom you may know from his Hooks & Harmony blog. seems to disagree. In his newly-published book The Death & Life of Mal Evans, Lee introduces us to an alternate universe in which The Beatles didn’t split in 1969/70, and charts their imagined story through the 1970s.
His narrative device is the revivified life of Beatles road manager/general assistant Mal Evans, who was shot dead by police in 1976. In Lee’s book, Evans restarts his life just before the point at which the Beatles break-up became inevitable, in September 1969. What follows is a series of events and incidents — real, invented and reinterpreted — which covers the career of John, Paul, George, Ringo and Mal.
This includes, of course, the release of new Beatles albums. For this Lee had to construct tracklistings of existing songs. That kind of thing is always good fun — I did that in a well-received three-parter in 2008, which forms the basis for this new “updated” series of notional Beatles LPs.
Lee’s selections were subject to stringent criteria: the earlier songs had to have been written for actual Beatles albums, or at least at when The Beatles were still together, before they appeared on solo albums (such as Lennon’s Jealous Guy or Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and Apple Scruffs); or they had to feature more than one Beatle on the solo recording (such as Ringo’s I’m The Greatest); or they must sound like they could have been Beatles songs.
In Lee’s alternate universe, George improves Paul’s majestic Maybe I’m Amazed with a blistering guitar solo, and later John’s Women includes the harmonies of Paul. Listen to these songs again and you can imagine it (talking of which, in Lee’s story Imagine was originally an acoustic guitar track; the way Lennon recorded it live in 1972 at Madison Square Garden).
The narrative requires Lee to take some liberties with timelines; Beatles fans — the novel’s obvious target readership — will quickly spot them. So Paul’s Wings release a critically panned album titled London Town in 1975. The Wings album by that name, of course, came out in early 1978, though nothing in the texts suggests that it was the same collection of songs. And in an alternate-universe story, which by its nature asks us to suspend disbelief, it is quite permissible to play with timelines.
There are small quibbles: the way Lennon’s nasty How Do You Sleep worms itself on to the first post non-breakup LP is not entirely convincing. But the narrative, which is exclusively from Mal Evan’s perspective, is loose enough to allow the reader to ascribe plot holes to the narrator’s subjective understanding of events.
The plot moves so fast that one is not held up by such details. The Death & Life of Mal Evans is a page-turner. We know how the Beatles story ended, how John died, and so on. We do not know how the story ends in Lee’s alternate reality. It is intriguing to anticipate the career path of the Beatles, as a group and individually, and especially to look forward to the new album releases. In that way Lee skillfully builds up a lot of suspense. (SPOILER ALERT: John does not get murdered by Mark Chapman!)
Lee gives a voice to one of the very few people in the Beatles environment whose experiences have not been widely disseminated. At the time of his death, Evans was preparing to write a memoir of his experiences with The Beatles, going back to the times of the Cavern Club. A bullet from a police pistol on January 5, 1976 put an end to that idea.
Lee gets into Mal Evans’ head and renders him as a believable character who lived for The Beatles, and who was rudderless when he was no longer needed by them. It is not only the imagined “history” of The Beatles that makes this novel so appealing, but also the story of redemption for one of the least understood and most likable characters in the Beatles story.
And soon I will revisit and rework my old three-part series of mixes that imagine that The Beatles never broke up. In the meantime, here’s The Beatles’ live double LP. (PW as usual, or look here)
1. Drive My Car
2. Dizzy Miss Lizzie
3. It Don’t Come Easy
4. Lady Madonna
6. Maybe I’m Amazed
7. Come Together
8. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
11. Here Comes The Sun
12. Hey Jude
14. Bangla Desh
16. I’ve Just Seen A Face
17. Yer Blues
18. Instant Karma (We All Shine On)
19. Octopus’s Garden
20. Let It Be